Two titans of local shopping stand on Orchard Road. TANGS and Robinsons are department stores stocked with the latest in fashion, homeware, beauty and accessories, yet their trend-setting present belies their rich past. TANGS and Robinsons were founded in 1932 and 1858 respectively, and have endured fires, strikes, bombs and a war to become the grand dames of Singapore’s retail scene today.

An old image of C.K Tangs in the past

A trip down memory lane
And old image of Orchard Road in the past

In 1923, Tang Choon Keng arrived in Singapore from China with nothing but two trunks—one tin and onhomee leather—filled with lace and linen, and a dream. He hired a rickshaw puller and went from door to door hawking his goods. It was backbreaking work, but Tang was in fact sowing the seeds of a retail empire.Ten years after making the journey south, Tang had saved enough to rent a shop unit and expand his ware to include Chinese arts and ornaments. He christened it “House of Tang”. Business flourished, expanded and even managed to weather the Japanese Occupation during World War II.

In 1958, after the war ended, Tang set his sights on Orchard Road. Ever the astute businessman, he took advantage of low property prices and nabbed a spot on Scotts Road for his third House of Tang branch. Despite the quiet neighbourhood—and inauspicious location opposite a Chinese cemetery—he believed in the district’s potential as a shopping hub. His instinct served him well.

As international travel became more accessible, in 1982, House of Tang evolved yet again. It adopted a simpler moniker, “TANGS”, and erected a 33-storey building whose green-tiled, pagoda-style roof and red columns are said to be inspired by Beijing’s Forbidden City. The building even included a hotel, the Dynasty Hotel, now known as Singapore Marriott Tang Plaza Hotel. And that tin trunk that started it all? It’s proudly displayed on the shop floor today.

While TANGS took influence from the East, Robinsons had its roots in the West. It was founded in 1858 as Spicer & Robinson, taking its name after its founders, Philip Robinson and James Gaborian Spicer. The department store began life as a “family warehouse” in Commercial Square (today’s Raffles Place), selling tea, sugar, biscuits and other foodstuffs.

Spicer left the partnership after a year, so Robinson dropped his name from the company and persevered. After the latter’s death in 1886, his son, also an adept merchant, took over the reins—and business prospered. In 1941, the store moved to a new location at Raffles Place, which was praised as “modern”, “spacious” and “comfortable”. Even as wartime rationing kicked in, clever planning meant the store had plenty of stock to display.

The resilient nature of Robinsons shone through in the months leading up to the Japanese Occupation. Bombs struck the building on two occasions, but the department store resumed operations the very next day. And while it ceased operations during the Japanese Occupation, it reopened for business a mere year after the British returned, in 1946.

Expansion was next on the cards. Robinsons acquired John Little, another department store, and the popular Marks & Spencer franchise from the UK in the 1950s. The store itself underwent a facelift, earning it the reputation of “the handsomest shop in the Far East”. But tragedy struck again. A massive fire utterly destroyed the landmark building in Raffles Place in 1972.

It did not take long for the store to bounce back. A month after the blaze, a new store opened, in Specialists’ Shopping Centre on Orchard Road. The brand then became the main anchor tenant of The Centrepoint in 1983, where it remained for more than three decades, and expanded its reach across the island, with openings in Raffles City (2001), JEM (2013).

Modern-day giants
Exterior of TANGS shopping mall.

Today, both department stores are household names among locals, known for their plethora of offerings and all-in-one shopping experience. As their histories suggest, they have constantly evolved, and they now bring a modern retail experience to shoppers along Orchard Road.

Take TANGS, for instance. After the older Tang passed the business to his son in 1987, it evolved to a fashion-forward retailer, with niche labels such as TANGS Studio, the Island Shop and the TANGS Beauty Hall. Its new identity as a modern, international shopping destination attracted the likes of big brands such as Estée Lauder, Paloma Picasso and Tyson Beckford to headline launches and events. Local design also became one of its main focuses. Today, the department store showcases many homegrown fashion designers and Singaporean labels such as Aijek, MAX.TAN, In Good Company and Carrie K.

In 2012, to mark the brand’s 80th anniversary, the flagship store at TANG Plaza underwent a top-to-toe transformation. Not only was the façade tweaked, but the product ranges and overall shopping experience were also updated: loyalty programmes were introduced, new F&B outlets cropped up in the building and an online store was set up.

Exterior of The Heeren.

As for Robinsons, it now boasts a swanky interior at The Heeren, its six floors packed with over 200 exclusive brands. Here, fashion, beauty and homeware reign, with brands that range from sophisticated to accessible, from international to local. Shoppers can slip on designer shoes at Sergio Rossi, hop over to French label The Kooples for edgy threads or check out local fashion from homegrown labels such as Ling Wu and Reckless Ericka.

Yet, despite its present polish, Robinsons remembers its roots. In conjunction with the National Museum of Singapore and the National Heritage Board, a Heritage Shop was launched on The Heeren’s fifth level that exhibits vintage artefacts such as bicycles and tea sets. It also sells merchandise inspired by the brand’s original store at Raffles Place. Shoppers can bring home porcelain umbrellas, tote bags and accessories—in doing so, they’re bringing home a slice of the store’s storied 159-year history.